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CHIAROSCURO - creating depth with light against dark and dark against light.
By forming a sky of scattered clouds a marvellous opportunity presents itself on the ground. The artist can use
light to highlight certain areas he and darken others. The artist becomes like the person controlling the lights on a
stage production. In the example below I use the bands of light to draw and direct the eye and all is done by
utilising the dramatic effects of light against dark and dark against light. Note how the painting seems to cascade
This is how it is done - detail from the center panel of my tryptic...
Most of the problems in developing a
painting concern VALUES -
contrasts on the grey scale.
Remember hue(color) has nothing to
do with value. Forget the color here
and try and estimate the grey value.
In the foreground the huge red dress
is dark against the blue carpet, then
the white tablecloth is the highest
value against the dress.
Fig 1 The four figures to
the right are bathed in
sunlight. The two on the
left are in semi-shade.
The light slants across
I want to highlight the
body language of the
people involved so I will
use high dramatic
will allow deep shadow
to creep across behind
the right hand four. (Fig
2)To create the reverse
effect behind the other
two figures I will use the
light slanting across the
table to create the higher
values on the tiles
behind. The woman
feeding the child and the
man in the red coat (dark
against light) are the
reverse of the four others
who are light against
dark. I will use a white
bonnet for the woman
feeding the child as it
will help define here
Fig 3 Here then is this
secondary layer with the
nude added. Notice how I
have already set up some
dark forms that I will use
against the next band of
Fig 4&5 I include an
artist in this next band of
highlights -and since he
is painting a picture I can
use the picture in two
ways. a) high (light
blue)value to define the
artist's head and dark to
define his shoulders. b) I
also place the easel
against a darker passage
for my next line of
shadows thereby adding
Remember to use the principles explained in the lessons on 'Veils of
Atmosphere' and 'Perspective.'
I have also used the
chiaroscuro to zigzag the
viewer's eye away.
Just decide where your bands of light and shade are going to flow and place your forms. Alternatively you can
make your drawing of the forms then apply the light - or like me use a little of both and if something doesn't
work keep experimenting. Don't change the color just alter the values!
Note: Chiaroscuro is also a powerful visual weapon so don't overuse it - you could end up with climaxes
(maximum value differences) all over the canvas - and that won't work.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Rembrant was thought to use the 'Italian chiaroscuro method' to increase drama in his
paintings when he thought it necessary. Nominate the areas on his 'Night Watch' that maximise contrast and
explain why, in the design sense, they are where they are. Allow 40min.
GO TO ... proportion and observation
.....or back to main lesson list
5-1 DRAWING PROPORTION AND OBSERVATION
Observation and genesis of the line and of freehand drawing
Long before an infant understands that milk finds its own level he or she learns to up-end the bottle to feed.
When, a little later, the child is asked to draw the level of a liquid in a tilted glass the result is often ...
By observation or logic the instant a child realizes liquid finds its own level he or she has learnt a principle that
will help it to survive and to understand the world. My point here is that descriptive drawing is scientific, logical
and the result of observation. There are no short-cuts. An understanding of the nature and structure of the world
must be learnt from looking. This is a process most folk find enjoyable for the discovery of hidden structures and
patterns is necessary for any painter. It also justifies my spending much of my life in the sunshine.
When nine or ten years old I often thought famous people
had small heads as the portraits of them seemed to me to
show them as such. I thought it may have been a requirement
of fame (sometimes I still do). Anyway like many other
children I would often draw adults with huge heads and small
stick-like bodies. I suppose after a few hundred grotesque
heads were stuck in my pram it was completely
So children observe the things most familiar and important to them and often draw them larger and in greater
detail than the things less critical - hence the large heads. It is no wonder then that during adolescence we find
the human body observed and drawn in far greater detail and with less emphasis on the head. Libarians can often
map a progressive interest in certain art books with well thumbed anatomical studies being in high demand
during late adolescence (I wonder why?)
A few artists have deliberately portrayed the human body with tiny heads. It is often referred to as the 'heroic'
style of portraiture.
But by knowing the average proportion of the head to the body we can make a deliberate decision on how we
decide to portray an individual. To that purpose we may make a decision as to their character and portray it
accordingly. We must always remember there are other predjudicial elements we can use like color, line and
form. The stuff of nightmares when you are trying to get it right sometimes.
My point here is that the rules that govern drawing are a tool kit to be used to dissemble and reassemble until the
artist is satisfied the mood (portrait) or shape (object) is satisfactorily captured.
STUDENT ACTIVITY :In the lesson on perspective you learnt how to draw a cube. The other important solids
are the cylinder, cone and the sphere. Use the perspective grid and practice these - also practice adding shading
HOW A LINE CAN AGE
From the moment a baby opens its eyes it begins keying-in shapes, with one of the first being the human face
and body. Then it learns to recognise various other shapes in order of their importance. The child also learns to
judge how far or how close is a particular object by judging their relationship to each other.
Notice how the shapes and curves of male adult lines are repeated in the hand, arm and torso of Adam.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Find your own examples of such lines and paste them (or copy their references) into
your work book.
GO TO ... Lines and what they mean
....or back to main lesson list
DRAWING - SO WHAT'S IN A LINE?
Lines that define the shape of the human body are those we most notice.
The human body is our yard-stick. To decide how big or far away something is we can have someone stand beside it.
We quickly learn to recognize the human form, above all else, as our pre-emminent shape, then we may look for details,
male, female, child, adult or aged. We have a great commonality of experience when differentiating the subtleties of the
human body, and so it is with drawng. There are many lines or edges in nature but our understanding of them evolves
from our first understanding of the lines that define the human body.
Note the little multiple bulbus shapes and lines and how these indicate the soft almost cellular nature of the flesh. The
multiple folds and lateral creases typify this in both the face and body.
In my portrait of Tom Ellison (above) the fully rounded shapes begin to appear as fat and muscle combine. Of course the
'adolescent' can change shape quite 'sharply', almost overnight, and their spurts of uneven growth can give them some
unusual, if momentary forms. I remember being quite worried myself, once or twice.
OK, this is fairly obvious, even if a little more subtle than the generalized shapes. The male has muscle defined with less
fat therefore a little' flat' on the 'tops' of the muscle. There is no hint yet of the concave lines that will begin to appear
later. The female shape in the above example has almost a 'male' line on the tilted upper left hip though it is more of a
skeletal or joint definition than flesh. I will say more about that later.
As fat disappears and muscle shrinks so the previoulsy convex edges become slightly concave and the gaps at the joints
become more prominent. It is more important for artists to study the skeletal structure when painting or drawing mature
or older humans or animals.
Next, and a rarity in portraiture and full body paintings, is the aged body's description as an edge. This is the most
unflattering and not one portrait painters or photographers would push you aside to witness. It must be noted however,
fashion photographers, fashion houses, et al, who are intent on finding models that bear a close resemblances to
perambulating coat hangers are not adverse to this anorexia look. They however, use it more for purposes of ambiguity
and decadent fascination, and that I will explain later on.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Make your own series of four drawings of some part of the human anatomy that ages.
Teachers should be careful not to discourage the more outrageous selections, but once started the pupil should be made
to finish (or explain why not). Allow 40min.
GO TO ... How to use this knowledge
......or back to main lesson list
DRAWING - THE MANY USES OF A LINE
Fig.1 Here is a fine example of using rounded female forms to make a
youthful face. Full cheeks and rouge lips!
Fig. 2Great delicacy is displayed in the grip and in the form of these
Fig. 3The powerful masculine shoulder and arm are defined by the
flattened ovals of muscle.
If we combine all these we should get an ambiguous picture, neither male
or female, youthful or mature but with elements of them all.
Fig.4Such was the intention of Carravggio in his
famous painting of Bacchus. He provides us with a
feast of ambiguities and it is an excellent example
of how minor variations of form can be altered for
AMBIGUOUS OR DECADENT LINES
What if we alter a form that is female, by virtue of long hair, stockings, high-heeled shoes and by adding 'male'
body lines? Remembering our defined lines ... say we flatten the muscles, make the joints a little more angular
(aged). What will this do to the 'look'? Perhaps something like the work of this famous painter ....
By now you are aware of why I call these lines ambiguous lines, but why decadent? The artist's intention is
clear as these are lines in the process of decay and deterioration. But more to the artist's intent they are a
mixture of a dual sexuality. This facility, a painter or drawer can employ, to alter the nature of a form by the
deliberate use of line or form is a powerful (and sometimes cruel) tool indeed. You will note the alteration of
the left forearm so the muscles are flattened from their usual rounded feminine form. The employment of such
devices probably tells us more about the painter than the sitter and that is not very professional.
TRANSPOSING LINES TO LANDSCAPE
Vincent VanGough was a master at transposing line to landscape, and there is no ambivalance his line. He used
clear purposeful lines in all his landscapes - even in areas without lines, like the sky. He often used line also as a
pattern, and without form. Some of his pictures use the aged line and others the youthful. You can judge by the
landscapes below. First look at the youthful lines in the 'Wheat Field and Cypress Pines' ...
... then look at the aged olive trees. He also loved to paint old, twisted grape vines.
Did VanGough do this deliberately?.... I don't know but my hope is he did. Some might ask does it
matter? If you think that you should not be reading this.
My final point here is that understanding the power of line, in drawing, is yet another spanner in the
painter's tool kit used to dissemble and reassemble. Like every powerful device it should be used with
humanity and sensitivity. Communicating using line, and form, is as potent as communicating with
words, only more universal. The painting above is merely composed of consistent adult female lines
where even the reverse curve of the nose gives the impression it is convex!. I must say I prefer this to
the 'ambivalent' example.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Make an outline drawing of Modigliani's nude shown above.
GO TO ... Pattern and texture
....or back to main lesson list
5-2 TEXTURE AND PATTERN
Texture:texture is one of the three main elements of a picture - the others being design and shape. Of
course their are many subdivisions that include color, light and shade etc.
1. The 'feathery' red hat is an example of Vermeer suggesting
texture by means of 'working the edge'. This is probably the
simplest method of creating a texture impression.
2. The polished ebony lions head is deliberately unfocused to
bring it forward. Solid dots within a milky halo are the method
used here to suggest polished highlights.
3. The blue silken sash below is made thin and silky by 'hard
edge' differentials between the light and dark blue. The edges
of the softer folds in the cape are not as harsh. I could have
simply worked the edges to make it a fur coat.
Look, think discover the logic then apply it. This topic will be addressed in more detail later in the lesson on
turning points and in the advanced lessons section on painting silk, satin, fur, linen, etc.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Collect five more examples of 'edge texture' from magazines or from the internet.
This is an excellent detail from a painting of an artist who identifies and repeats a simple shape.
I count more than ten repetitions of the sickle moon shape.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Download and print the picture and indentify the ten repetitions.
The partuicular artist (?) was perceptive enough to realize the particular element
had a significance
both as a descriptive shape regarding his subjects and as a religious and tribal icon (as it does to many other
GO TO ... design your own
............or back to main lesson list
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS (and get to the theory later)
Let us assume we are faced with the situation where the following picture must be cropped to fit a particular
frame. How should it be done?
You probably have quite definite ideas about your preferred option ... and if I said I preferred No.2 you may
decide I should seek serious counselling or some other form of professional help.
But most paintings do have accents or points of natural interest. Sometimes these are the areas of maximum
contrast (lightest against darkest), other times it is a color accent (hue), or in a narrative painting, it could be an
area of high dramatic intent - or it may even be a combination of all three. There can, of course, be dominant,
secondary and many other minor accents. The question is: where to place them within a defned space so they look
Without explaining the complexities of physics, calcalus or harmonic proportion (all of which I forgot as soon as
I gave up my promising career as a rocket scientist - I ran out of chalk). Still, I have found the following method a
helpful starting point for the humble painter.
1. For primary accents - corners of the center rectangle.
Try and counterpoint a dominant accent with a two secondary or some minor accents (mostly outside the
Remember, everything is a balance with the relationship of all the parts to each other as they are to be
sympathetic to the whole. Extra accents could lie on the corners of the second rectangle as shown below.
Remember the diagonals are powerful lines in any composition (below).
Later you will see where spirals and curves can also assist in forming the basis of compositions.
An example- one of my most difficult design tasks was to construct a painting to form the frontpiece of my
tryptic (a three paneled paining). I was faced with a square to be split down the middle - upon which I wanted to
place a single portrait. The problem was I did not want the figure to look as if it were cut in two by and axe.
1.The diagonal forms the main element of the composition.
2.The triangle forces a relief to the diagonal and is the principal construct of the figure.
3. The green and red circles are counterpoint highlights equidistant about the split just like you would balance
weights on a seesaw (fulcrum).
With enough counterpoints we can almost create pattern ...
STUDENT ACTIVITY: download or cut and paste into your book a famous painting of your choice. Analyse,
showing diagonals and counterpoints and explaining elements that bring the painting into 'balance'. Time:40min.
GO TO ... the 'golden mean'
......or lesson list
THE GOLDEN MEAN or GOLDEN SECTION
The 'Golden Mean' is merely a mathematical ratio usually discerned by the painter as the ratio of the larger side
of a rectangle as it relates to the shorter. Derived by the ancient Greeks it can be constructed geometrically or
expressed as a simple ratio, namely 1:1618... Like "pi", the number 1.618... is an irrational number. Both the
ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians used the Golden Mean when designing their buildings and monuments.
The builders of Paestum used the Golden Mean in their temples. Artists as diverse as Leonardo da Vinci and
George Seurat used the ratio when constructing their paintings.
In classical architecture it was thought this particular ratio was the most pleasing to the eye and its extrapolation
into a spiral could be found replicated in nature in such diverse things as pine cones and sea shells or the curve
of a fern.
I see no particular theological significance in the golden mean, nor do I slavishly design my paintings or
canvases to follow its geometry.
Well that noted then how is this 'golden mean' found using a ruler and a compass?
In Fig 1 we draw a square.
In Fig 2 we divide it into two.
Fig 3 and we use our compass to transfer the diagonal to the base line.
Then we form the rectangle that for artists represents the 'golden mean' .
Ok now we know what the 'golden mean' is what do we do with it? How do we employ it to assist our painting?
Well, the most obvious is to buy your canvases in the proportion 1:1.618 (or thereabouts). Other than that you
will understand why, in the previous lesson, I used my particular diagonal method to define my painting accents
and if you look at the diagram below you will see where I superimpose the golden mean over the diagonals. It is
almost an identical result. Otherwise one method could be described as robust while the other more precise.
The unfinished painting below is constructed by the 'golden mean'. How, you may ask, since it is a square?
(A full view of this painting can be seen by pressing here. It is also available as a quality giclee print.)
To find out how I designed this particular painting format, using the golden mean, you will need to go to the
advanced golden mean section of these lessons as the particular details may cause the odd frown or need for some
to visit our site refreshment area (open 24 hours). Anyway it does not mention the 'Golden Triangle' (really an
isosceles triangle with base angles of 72 degrees and not an unspecified area in SE Asia), and its not for the
instinctive painter. It is however, important for those who seek to understand order before they experiment with
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Repeat and copy my diagrams. Label them.
GO TO ... ideas and styles
............or back to main lesson list
Before you start painting you must decide on your object in learning to paint. There are many styles and methods
of applying paint to a surface but there are three main reasons for doing so. After you have looked at these
reasons and the examples I have provided you should be able to follow your purpose and utilize the tools of
drawing, color, texture and design to your best advantage. The categories are not definitive as many paintings
encompass more than a single element - nor is any objective better or worse than any other.
None should ever gain from a painting any dividend in excess of what the artist invests - and if he or she does it is
a fool's profit. Sadly so many twentieth century artists hold their public in the same regard a con man would a
victim. Even Picasso and Dali made some unfortunate comments in this regard. If we train our senses sufficiently
they can evolve to the extent they are able to discern great subtlety. Just as a wine taster or gourmet train theirs so
can a visual artist and it is truly a joy.' ...
The categories are:
1. Decoration - I want to paint because I love to decorate.
Fig 1.(above) Here color and proportion are made pleasing to the senses.
Fig 2 Impressionist decoration.
Fig 3 The use of an accent (bright red in a sea of grey) for an eye catching wall decoration
I would have you paint decoration for the appreciation of decoration, paint subtlety for the appreciation of
subtlety and paint messages for those looking to pictures for meaning. Why deny people their decoration, why
deny the high church their subtlety, why deny the communicators their messages? There is no good reason—still,
I would have the artist be all, at the same time. But if you find you cannot, just rejoice in the diversity and do not
judge one better than the other.
2. Fine Art - I want to paint to understand and enjoy visual ideas.
Here I will quote a respected food and wine judge, 'In summary less is more. The flavours and fragrances we
most enjoy are the ones we only just perceive. More than that, they make us sick. Rose scent is a good example.'
Fig 4 One of the greatest paintings of all time - sublimely subtle. The viewer knows exactly how the artist felt
towards the subject. (note the lips slightly apart - a rarity in northern renaissance portraiture)
Fig 5 The mystery, subtlety and the innovation in this painting makes your hair stand on end.
Fig 6 The use of light and landscape in an allegory about painting.
3. Message - I want to paint because I have a message to communicate.
Fig 7. (above) Never has design, contrast and color been so forcefully used in the cause of humanity. A rare feat:
no action photograph could ever compete.
Fig 8 There is little decoration or subtlety in this painting titled "Executions at Portsmouth'.
The examples are selected to best illustrate their category by single-mindedly ignoring the other two(ie. in the
decorative category the artist has made no attempt at description nor is there any message to be had. In the second
category decoration and message are absent whereas the message in the third category swamps everything else.)
To show I am unbiased the last example in each category is one of my own paintings.
STUDENT ACTIVITY: Make you own list of five paintings nominating their categories. Note - some might
have more than one category and if so you must name them.
GO TO ... analysis of a vermeer
.... or lesson list
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